We Are Our Mountains monument in Stepanakert, the capital of the Nagorny Karabakh Republic. This statue is widely regarded as a symbol of the identity of Nagorny Karabakh. (Photograph by this writer)
One of many hotspots in the former Soviet space is the region of Nagorny Karabakh in the Caucasus. I have written about Nagorny Karabakh in the past, but this time, I would like to focus precisely on Russia’s view of the situation.
What is Nagorny Karabakh?
Nagorny Karabakh is a majority-Armenian region in the Caucasus. Its landscape is forested and mountainous, dotted with numerous historical Armenian monuments and churches. It is one of the most beautiful places in the former Soviet Union.
The region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but is a de facto independent state, closely allied with neighboring Armenia. Armenia, which does not officially recognize Nagorny Karabakh, maintains that its local Armenian inhabitants have the right to self-determination (whether or not to be an independent state, part of Armenia, or an autonomous region of Azerbaijan). This position is supported by the area’s majority-Armenian population. By contrast, Azerbaijan argues for the principle of territorial integrity and that Nagorny Karabakh’s future should be determined only within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan. Supported by Armenia, Nagorny Karabakh gained its de facto independence from Azerbaijan after a war in the 1990s, one of a handful of post-Soviet ethnic conflicts. Today, the status of Nagorny Karabakh is frozen and can be best described as one of “neither war nor peace.”
The name of the region, a testament to its checkered history, is a Russian, Turkish, and Persian amalgam, which literally means “Mountainous Black Garden.” The “Nagorny” or “Mountainous” aspect is important because this distinguishes the area from the traditionally majority Muslim Azerbaijani Lowland Karabakh. The term “Karabakh” is often liberally used as shorthand in the West to refer exclusively to majority Christian Armenian “Mountainous Karabakh.” However, the term “Karabakh” can also be used to refer to both the Mountainous and Lowland areas in totality. To avoid confusion, I will refer to the area as Nagorny Karabakh (henceforth NK).
NK is also referred to by its historical Armenian name, “Artsakh,” by Armenians in Armenia and in NK. The local Armenian population of NK speaks a unique dialect of Armenian that even standard Armenian speakers have difficulty understanding.
Tsar Peter the Great saw great potential in expanding Russia into the Caucasus. Portrait by Paul Delaroche, 1838.
Why is Nagorny Karabakh important to Russia historically?
With regard to Russian history, NK is part of the reason that present-day Armenia (historical Eastern Armenia) and the South Caucasus generally became part of the Russian Empire. In the 18th century, Khachen (as NK was then known) and Syunik (today southern Armenia) were the only parts of historic Armenia that were able to retain a semi-independent status amid Armenia being overrun by the Mongols, Turks, and Persians. Formally, the two principalities were semi-independent vassals of Persia. Their princes (meliks), together with the king of eastern Georgia and the Armenian Orthodox Patriarch (Catholicos), formed a coalition beseeching Tsar Peter the Great to liberate their lands from their larger Islamic neighbors.
Peter was interested in the Caucasus not only to help fellow Orthodox Christians, but also as a means for Russia to secure access to profitable trade routes to India, in order to gain access to silk and other riches. Thus began the relationship between Russia and the Caucasus that would eventually culminate in the annexation of eastern and western Georgia (starting in 1801), the further incorporation of historical Eastern Armenia and present-day Azerbaijan in 1813-1828, and the conquest of the North Caucasus in the 1860s.
What are the origins of the present-day dispute over Nagorny Karabakh?
The origins of the present-day dispute over NK date to the Sovietization of the Caucasus in the early 1920s. It is important to understand how the dispute originated in order to comprehend the dynamics of the conflict today. There are two different theories in this regard that are widely repeated in the media. Neither is supported by factual evidence, but both fit conveniently into dominant political narratives.
Anastas Mikoyan, Joseph Stalin, and Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Tbilisi, 1925. Though often held chiefly responsible for assigning Nagorny Karabakh to Azerbaijan, Stalin’s actual influence was not a major factor in the final decision.
One theory asserts that the dispute began when Stalin personally decided to assign NK to Soviet Azerbaijan during the Sovietization of the Caucasus. Those who support this theory have given different possible explanations as for Stalin’s exact motivation for such a step. Some claim that he wanted to appease Turkey, hoping that under Atatürk, Ankara would develop into a communist state. Others allege that Stalin had an anti-Armenian bias. However, most proponents of this theory claim that the motivation was for Moscow to divide-and-rule Armenia and Azerbaijan. Overall, this theory is undermined by the fact that Stalin was far from the zenith of his power and was not the sole decision-maker in determining NK’s fate, even though he was the Commissar of Nationalities at the time. Moreover, he had good relations with Armenian communists like Mikoyan and was actually sympathetic to Armenian claims over NK.
The second theory holds that the Soviets assigned NK to Azerbaijan because it was economically dependent on the city and surrounding area of Baku during Tsarist times. However, if this was true, then the Armenian provinces of Syunik and Tavush (which, together with NK, were part of the Tsarist-era Elizavetpolskaya Guberniya) would have been logically assigned to Azerbaijan on the same basis. Instead, they became part of Soviet Armenia.
In reality, according to recent research by Caucasus scholar Arsene Saparov, the actual reason behind NK’s assignment to Azerbaijan was the fact that, despite its majority Christian Armenian population, it was controlled by Azerbaijani forces at the time of Sovietization. It was therefore easier for the Soviets to sanction the existing situation on the ground, while also offering the “compromise” of local Armenian autonomy. Hence the “Nagorny Karabakh Autonomous Oblast” of Soviet Azerbaijan was established. Again, it is important to emphasize that the Soviets were desperate to secure control of the region at the time and, being communist-internationalists, they believed that national borders would one day be abolished anyway. There were no sinister imperial schemes or machinations behind the assignment of NK to Azerbaijan.
How does Russia view Nagorny Karabakh today?
Today, Moscow ultimately wants to see some sort of resolution, but it realizes that devising one is virtually impossible right now, given current conditions. It therefore favors the status quo and continued peace talks.
Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus
Along with the United States and France, Russia is a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group which facilitates talks on the NK issue. Both the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments are committed to these talks. However, the present government of Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan, which has engaged in high military spending and bellicose anti-Armenian rhetoric, is unwilling to compromise on anything short of NK’s total return to Baku. Armenia in turn has stood firmly in favor of Karabakh’s self-determination. The unrecognized NK Republic is currently not involved in the negotiations, but states that it should be, due to the fact that it is the representative of the local Armenian population.
As of a result of the NK war of the 1990s, the NK Republic also controls a handful of districts of Azerbaijan proper, giving them contiguous frontiers with Armenia and Iran. A potential compromise solution may require forfeiting some of these districts, such as Aghdam. The status of refugees and other issues also need to be discussed, but the main sticking point for both sides remains the determination of NK’s ultimate status.
It is important to note that Armenia relies on Moscow for security vis-a-vis Azerbaijan and Turkey, both of which have closed their borders with Armenia since the 1990s. However, Turkish-Armenian relations have improved significantly since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (or AKP) came to office. For instance, though Turkey still denies the 1915 Armenian Genocide, the issue is no longer a taboo in Turkish society and is now openly discussed. However, largely due to pressure from Turkey’s domestic nationalists and from official Baku, the border between Turkey and Armenia remains closed, despite the obvious benefits for both Ankara and Yerevan. Nevertheless, Turkish-Armenian relations will continue to improve and will be further helped by growing cooperation between Ankara and Moscow on issues such as the proposed Turk Stream gas pipeline.
Meanwhile, relations between Yerevan and Baku remain tense. In this regard, Armenia looks to Moscow for security and is therefore a close ally of Moscow and Russia’s main “center” in the South Caucasus today. By contrast, Azerbaijan was engaged in a flirtation with the West for some time, especially with oil lobbyists and neoconservative politicians in Washington eager to undermine Iran and Russia. The latter two groups have been very interested in creating alternative energy pipelines from post-Soviet Central Asia through Azerbaijan and to Europe, at the expense of traditional energy routes from Russia.
The mountains of Nagorny Karabakh. (Photograph by this writer)
However, Azerbaijan’s flirtation with the West appears to have diminished in recent years, amid mounting criticism regarding Baku’s human rights record. Baku has therefore engaged in new thaws with Moscow and Tehran. However, it is unlikely to join the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union any time soon, given Aliyev’s interest in keeping Azerbaijan independent of any supranational union or alliance. However, Baku has a finite supply of natural energy reserves and will have no choice but to turn to regional cooperation, compromise, and economic diversification in the future. In this respect, it would do well to discard the bellicose discourse and adopt a more balanced and constructive approach.
In Moscow’s view, a resolution of the NK dispute is not only desirable for regional stability but also for Russian security. Russia continues to face challenges on its troubled southern frontier in the North Caucasus with Islamic extremists. In order to help contain and isolate this threat, Russia seeks to solidify its position in the former Soviet South Caucasus states. A strong “buffer zone” of secure and friendly countries to the south of the North Caucasus is therefore an important vector of Russia’s policy toward the region.
Russia is also concerned about the potential expansion of NATO in the South Caucasus, particularly in Georgia. Additionally, it is concerned about the expansion of US-supported energy projects designed to undermine Russian energy exports to Europe. Moscow is puzzled by these American-backed steps, which are viewed as a throwback to Cold War “containment” and as a provocation intended to isolate and weaken Russia. They are also regarded as spurning potential cooperation on serious matters such as fighting Islamic extremism in the area. Indeed, Georgia has recently faced problems with Islamic radicalism in the Pankisi Gorge and attempts by ISIS to woo the region’s local population of ethnic Kists (a Chechen subgroup). Notably, the infamous ISIS commander Omar al-Shishani is originally from Pankisi. Given such concerns, it is clear that if Moscow, Tbilisi, and Washington all worked together to combat this common threat, the benefits would be optimal.
Whatever the future, for Moscow, the Caucasus remains an important area within the post-Soviet space and a potential flashpoint for future conflict. Despite the dispute over NK, Armenians and Azerbaijanis have co-existed and lived together side-by-side in the past. Peace is possible, and indeed NK would greatly benefit from cooperation between Russia and the West.